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‘Unmitigated failure’: Fox Sports pundit judges USWNT World Cup run

USWNT players react after their elimination from the 2023 World Cup. (Robin Alam/Getty Images for USSF)

The U.S. women’s national team should consider its 2023 World Cup run “an unmitigated failure,” Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas said after Sunday’s elimination match against Sweden.

The two-time defending World Cup champions entered the 2023 tournament in search of a historic third consecutive title. But they fell well short, exiting the tournament in the Round of 16 for the worst finish in team history. No previous U.S. team had finished lower than third place at a World Cup.

The 5-4 loss to Sweden on penalties came after the USWNT dominated most of the match. The teams played to a scoreless draw through regulation and extra time, but the USWNT maintained a 58% advantage in possession, a 22-9 advantage in shots and a staggering 11-1 advantage in shots on target.

“The play of this game, while deservedly praised, it doesn’t cover up deficiencies. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be an examination of this team… From a historic perspective, this has never happened,” Lalas said. “And so ultimately 2023 has been an unmitigated failure for this U.S. team.”

The USWNT brought a much different lineup to the 2023 tournament from its 2015 and 2019 title runs, with 14 players making their World Cup debuts. While several stars from the previous tournaments returned, many of them — including Alex Morgan, Julie Ertz, Megan Rapinoe, Kelley O’Hara — were playing radically different roles for the team, either in terms of strategy (Morgan, Ertz) or minutes (Rapinoe, O’Hara).

“If you look at the past two World Cup-winning teams, this was the weakest U.S. team of the three,” Lalas said. “And so is this a surprise that they are going out? Not necessarily.”

Yet the USWNT did itself no favors with a poor showing in the group stage, as Lalas noted. After a 1-1 draw with the Netherlands and a 0-0 draw with Portugal, the U.S. finished second to the Dutch squad in Group E, setting up the Round of 16 clash with powerhouse Sweden. The Netherlands, meanwhile, advanced to the quarterfinals with a 2-0 win against South Africa.

The USWNT looked more comfortable against Sweden than in any of its three group-stage matches, helped by a midfield-heavy 4-2-3-1 formation. Yet the strong play against Sweden could be considered an indictment of the team’s overall plan for the tournament.

“Why did it take three games for this team to finally show up at this World Cup?” Lalas asked.

Lalas and his fellow Fox Sports analyst Carli Lloyd received backlash for their criticism of the USWNT in the aftermath of the final group-stage match, which included questions about players’ mentalities and their focus. After the elimination match, both analysts largely kept their critiques to the team’s on-field performance — at least on the postgame show.

In particular, Lalas, who played for the U.S. men’s national team from 1991-98, called for a tough look at head coach Vlatko Andonovski and his players as the USWNT makes its plans for the 2024 Olympics and beyond.

“A credit to them and a credit to Vlatko for, at least in this moment, doing the things needed to fix it and come out with a much, much better performance,” Lalas said. “But in totality, this was not good enough for this team. And ultimately, when it comes down to it, they were just not good enough to go and win that historic third in a row.”